The rain was pouring down. Lightning and thunder filled the sky. My blind on a steep slope in the Bitterroot Mountains had no roof and was becoming seriously wet. I was in the last few hours of my week-long hunt and hadn’t yet seen a bear. Despite the miserable weather, I remained dry in my gore-tex, happy and calm, continuing to scan for any sign of a bear approaching the bait.
Sometimes a hunt doesn’t go as planned, but ends up being a wonderful adventure anyway. That was the case with my Idaho spring bear hunt. I never took a shot and never saw a bear, but I was still quite satisfied with my hunt.
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About Cameron Outfitters and the Bitterroot Mountains
Texans in the heart of the Idaho wilderness? Yes indeed, and what great people they are! Garry and Sherri Cameron moved from Texas about four years ago and bought an existing outfitting business. They subsequently established their own outfitting/guide service in the Bitterroot Mountains along the border of Idaho and Montana. They have exclusive guiding rights to 800 square miles of Idaho backcountry!
Their core guides are family members, sons and cousins, but they bring on additional help during the busy hunting seasons. Everyone I met was friendly, polite, hard working and intent on making the hunter’s trip a success. If you’re not familiar with Texans, be prepared for a lot of “Yes sir” and “Yes ma’am” in conversation. I went in as a client hunter, and immediately became friends.
This was a spring bear hunt, which the state of Idaho encourages. Idaho actually makes it very easy and inexpensive for non-resident hunters. Two bear tags and a wolf tag along with the hunting and fishing license cost me just over $300 — quite the bargain! Idaho wants to reduce the number of black bears and wolves in the area to help the elk and deer numbers return to their historical levels. Black bears in particular are quite adept at hunting and killing young fawns and elk calves.
I have shot four black bears and a grizzly in the past, but had never hunted over bait which is illegal in my home state of Washington. I wanted to experience hunting bears over bait from a blind, a hunt Cameron Outfitters offers.
They guide for black bears, mountain lions, deer and elk. They also offer camping trips and fishing trips. All guides are experienced hunters and horsemen. They maintain a large number of horses and mules for these hunting trips. A hunter can choose to hunt from base camp or can pack into a more remote backcountry location for the hunt.
Paradise Camp is one of three permanent camps operated by Cameron Outfitters. There’s a dining lodge with a well-equipped kitchen and a shower. The cabins are known as hardback tents, because the roofs are tent canvas stretched tight. Each cabin has beds and a wood burning stove quite capable of heating the cabin all night! Each cabin can accommodate up to four people and they’re comfortable. I was alone in mine and got in the habit of taking a nice afternoon nap after lunch and before going out for the evening hunt.
Cell service was impossible in the area until recently with the addition of a Starlink system. I was surprised to find that I could text my wife and even access the internet from base camp!
About the Bitterroot Mountains
These rugged mountains along the Idaho-Montana border are quite steep. Trapper Peak is the tallest, at 10,157 ft. Major rivers cut through them including the Lochsa, Selway and Salmon. They have been logged in the past, but signs of that logging were scarce in the area we hunted.
The Magruder Corridor road links Darby, Montana and Elk City, Idaho. It’s about 100 miles in length and travels through a large, remote and undeveloped area. This road follows the route of an ancient native American trade route used by the Nez Perce and Salish peoples. The area was used by them for hunting and fishing, and they still exercise those rights today.
About the Guns and Loads
There were four hunters in camp and I was somewhat surprised that three of us had brought 45-70 Marlins! Gary Cameron was pleased to see the big bore Marlins, declaring them excellent bear rifles. I brought both my 45-70 Marlin and a custom 7mm PRC centered around a Bergara action.
My 45-70 is Marlin’s standard model with a 22” barrel and walnut stock with curved grip.
I added Skinner front and rear sights to the barrel, and use a compact 2.5x Leupold in Quick Detach scope mounts.
We looked at my load in an earlier story.
- 350 grain Hornady RNSP Interlock
- 56.5 grains of IMR 3031 (Elmer Keith’s favorite 45-70 powder)
- CCI 200 large rifle primers
- WW cases
- 1900+ fps
The 7mm PRC hadn’t yet been blooded and I was hoping to take a bear with it on this trip.
It’s a wonderfully accurate rifle, well-suited for precision shooting at long and short ranges. I hunted with it for a week, carrying it while hiking and setting it up in three different blinds in the Bitterroot mountains. Previously I’d only shot it at the range, and it was a pleasure getting familiar with the rifle via many hours of hunting over seven days.
The Hawkins hunter magazine held three 7mm PRC cartridges and made loading and unloading easy.
My hunting load:
- 175 grain Hornady ELD-X
- 80.5 grains of Ramshot LRT
- Federal 215 primers
- Hornady cases
- 2929 fps
*Note that my load is .5 grains over the max shown in Hodgdon’s manual for a Nosler Long Range Accubond of the same weight. This load has shot into the .4’s at 100 yards and Gavin has an even more accurate load with the 180 grain ELD-M match bullet—all three shots literally making one ragged hole at 100 yards. That’s excellent accuracy from a powerful hunting rifle!
I grew to appreciate the Riton 3-24×50 scope on this rifle. It allowed me to clearly see the bait stand at dusk, long after I couldn’t see it with my 67-year-old eyes! At these modest ranges, I simply kept the scope set at 3x for the widest field of view possible.
Zach brought a Browning bolt action rifle topped by a 3-9x Leupold. It’s a handy rifle that proved to be accurate and it was easy to pack on the horses he and his wife used to reach their hunting area. Zach was using factory .270 Winchester Super X, 130 grain soft point ammunition. Sadly, like me, he didn’t get a shot at a bear during this hunt.
Kevin brought an original ported 45-70 Marlin Guide Gun, JM stamped, made in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s. It is a good-looking and handy rifle with a short 18.5” barrel. His handload was taken from the Barnes manual and is ½ grain under maximum:
- 300 grain Barnes TSX
- 49.5 grains Accurate 1680
- Starline brass
- Winchester LRP
- 2.515” OAL
- Approx 2300 fps
Joe also brought a great looking early JM stamped Marlin Guide Gun, nearly identical to Kevin’s. It’s topped by a 2-7x Nikon Monarch scope. His handload was derived from the Hornady reloading manual:
- 300 grain Hornady JHP interlock
- 56.6 IMR 3031
- Starline brass
- Remington 9 ½ large rifle primer
- 1900 fps
- Sub MOA groups at 100 yards
A bit about handguns. Almost everyone, hunters and staff, were carrying sidearms. This area holds wolves, mountain lions and bears. As bear hunters, we anticipated walking up onto a bear or following a wounded bear, and a sidearm is good protection. We also had to walk out from the blind in darkness. I saw a wide variety of handguns there. Personally I carried one of my favorites, a 357 magnum S&W model 60 with a 3” barrel and adjustable sights. It’s compact, reasonably light and easy to carry and it shoots well. I loaded it with 180 grain hardcast 357 magnum from Buffalo Bore. I saw Smith & Wesson and Ruger revolvers in .357 mag, 44 mag, 45 Colt, 454 Casull and 460 S&W. For semi-autos, I saw a 45 ACP Kimber, and GLOCKS primarily in 10mm. As a firearms instructor, I was pleased to note that everyone was handling their firearms safely. With the reasonably short ranges I saw from my blinds, this would also be a good place for a handgun hunter to take a bear.
About the Hunt
The adventure started just getting to the hunting area. I drove from my home in central Washington to Darby, Montana and spent the night there. The next morning I met up with Gary Cameron, the outfitter, and Kevin, a fellow hunter. I followed Gary’s “Snow Runner”, a modified Toyota 4Runner, up and over 6,587’ Nez Perce Pass. A road grader was clearing the snow on the Montana side, but the Idaho side hadn’t been touched and drifts up to 18” deep blocked the path. I aired down my Jeep tires to 15 psi, shoved the transfer case into low-range and engaged the front air locking differential to easily pull through the snow drifts. I was glad to be following Gary as he knows the route well.
We reached Gary’s Paradise Camp which has stood for decades, unloaded our gear and got to know each other. One of the hunters in camp, Joe, recognized me from Ultimate Reloader! He told me that he had loaded his 45-70 ammunition with IMR 3031 because of our earlier video about the 45-70. Gary’s 19-year-old capuchin monkey, Harry, introduced himself to us one by one, causing a lot of laughter and smiles.
Talk quickly turned to rifles and hunting. I was surprised to see that both Kevin and Joe had brought their 45-70 Marlins, and I had one as well. Zach had a nice Browning bolt action in .270 Winchester. Kevin noticed the Skinner peep sight on my Marlin and mentioned that he puts Skinner sights on many of his lever action rifles.
We then set up a target and all checked our zeros. The 7mm PRC rifle was dead-on as expected, but the quick-detach rings on my Marlin had loosened up a bit and I took a few shots to adjust the point of impact. The target was on a log, and the three Marlin 45-70 rifles sure hit it hard!
Gary cautioned us that the bears in this area tend to be built more lightly than in some other places. He opined that they’re better suited for travel through this steep and mountainous terrain than heavier bears. He estimated that the average adult black bear in this area weighs 120 – 150 pounds. During our stay however, a backcountry hunter tagged a roughly 250 pound bear. They’re at their lightest at this time of year, having recently come out of hibernation. These bears frequently are colored differently than basic black, and are found in chocolate, cinnamon and even blonde colors. Bears taken on these early spring hunts often have excellent hide quality with few rub marks.
That afternoon we started what became the standard pattern: leaving camp about 5:00 pm to get to our various blinds, hiking in, settling down and waiting. I was at “Snake,” named for the nearby Snake creek. The bait was about 60 yards in front of me and a noisy stream was behind and well below me. Waiting for a bear, I watched squirrels, ravens and three deer feed at the bait site. The 7mm PRC was firmly held in my Bog Deathgrip tripod aimed at the bait site.
At dusk, when I could no longer see the bait site, I still had a good view through the bright Riton scope. I needed a headlamp on the way out. About 10:15 PM we gathered for a late supper and enjoyed one of Sherri’s wonderful meals. She managed to have breakfast ready for us by 0500, sack lunches available mid day, and served a great dinner late at night. We were up at 0430 the next morning and back to the blinds. The pattern continued. Zach and his wife Holly rode out on mules a couple of times to get to more distant blinds. Joe was the first of us to get a shot at a bear. He was approaching his blind, saw a bear and quickly brought the 45-70 Guide Gun into action, putting a single 300 grain Hornady hollow point Interlock bullet through the bear’s chest and dropping it quickly! The bullet went into the ribs then traversed through the chest and exited out the opposite side shoulder. Impressive performance!
Contrary to popular thought, bear meat can be safe to eat and absolutely delicious! We feasted on bear tacos at Paradise Camp one evening. These bears, recently out of hibernation, are feeding mostly on fresh spring grasses, and of course on the trail-mix type bait used by Cameron Outfitters. Their meat is quite good. It is important to cook bear meat thoroughly, as many black bear do carry trichinosis, a parasitic disease.
This is a great, and affordable hunt. It’s a nice way to take care of that urge to hunt big game long before the fall seasons open. Idaho makes it inexpensive and easy for non-residents to get bear tags. Cameron Outfitters and others conduct these hunts year after year with good success. It could also be done as a do-it-yourself hunt, from your own camp on public lands.
I’ve already told Gary that I’ll be back for a re-match with his bears, possibly riding a mule into the backcountry for a different experience.
If you’ve got a rifle or handgun better suited for modest range hunting, this is your hunt! If things had gone my way, I was going to use the precision 7mm PRC for my first bear and my 45-70 for the second bear. Gary Cameron has some areas where a rifle capable of 300 to 600 yard shots would be a benefit. The three stands I used were great for a modest range rifle and my 45-70 Marlin would have done well.
Get the Gear
(Note that these are intended for barrels with a minimum of a 1:8.5” twist, or faster. They may not stabilize if fired from a conventional 7mm Remington Magnum rifle.)
To learn more about Cameron Outfitters, go to their website.
To learn more about hunting in Idaho, go to the state website.
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